Tag Archives: curriculum

Four Things That Don’t Help Children Learn

free-play

I recently read a blog titled, 4 Things Worse Than Not Learning to Read in Kindergarten. This blog made a huge impact on me because it is written from a parent’s point of view. I have had to have many crucial conversations through my experience in the early childhood field, around developmentally appropriate goals for children during their early years. This is in spite of how it has been proven that children learn best through play and being allowed to follow their interests. The thing that concerns me the most is that many programs, schools, and families are putting pressure on children who are entering preschool that is not developmentally appropriate.

Using the same four “worse things” that are presented in the blog, I hope to capture the disturbing similarities that are happening to not only preschoolers but infants and toddlers, as well.

Limited time for creative play. There is such a focus on learning the ABCs and 123s that children are losing valuable time just getting to be children. During free play, teachers are often caught up in preparing for teacher directed activities rather than spending time observing, interacting, modeling, and wondering with children while they play. When children are permitted to have choices on where to play, they are many times stopped from taking a toy from one area to another or use materials in a manner for which they may not have been originally intended. Group times are spent going over posters of colors and shapes, calendar, and weather rather than having a “meeting of the minds.” What do children want to learn about? What is new in the room they will get to explore? Are there any changes to the routine or a new activity that can be discussed that could help limit challenges to transitions and set limits or explain expectations? Or perhaps a formal group time isn’t needed at all. Offer several opportunities throughout the day to read books and sing songs just because it is fun and that is what children want to do in that moment.

Limited physical activity. Children need action! Movement helps to build the brain. Children are wired to move. They need to experience the verbs of life not just learn about what they are. They need to have ample opportunity to push, pull, carry, hop, run, chase, crawl and climb. Not only is gross motor and outside time limited, children are expected to wait for long periods of time, to sit a particular way, such as crisscross applesauce or to catch a bubble while walking through the halls. How long can you sit with your legs crossed? When was the last time you walked with your peers and refrained from having a conversation in the hallway? Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to teach them how to sit comfortably so that they can listen to the book that is being read? Maybe they need to wiggle or would like to lean against their buddy/friend while they listen. Too many times, I hear adults telling children how to sit or to be quiet that it takes twice as long to read a book and then the children who were interested at the beginning of the book become uninterested.

Teaching that focuses on standards and testing. Yes, standards and assessments have made their way into early childhood settings just as they have in elementary, middle and high school. When used appropriately these standards and assessments can shed light on how to plan, provide a roadmap for consistency and measure learning and development. When used inappropriately, they drive decision making around funding and put unneeded pressure on teachers, which ultimately affects the children. I have often been asked, “How am I going to teach everything that is in the assessment?” The purpose of the assessment it to track learning, not dictate what must be taught.

Frustration and a sense of failure. In my opinion, this is the worst of the “4 worse things.” No child should ever be made to feel less than human for not being able to perform. Especially when it is based on expectations that are practically unattainable such as a stringent focus on academics and lengthy group times. Children should be treated with the same respect that we expect from others. I often try to help teachers see things from a child’s perspective by putting them in a similar scenario such as long lines at the grocery store check out or an unexpected deadline that doesn’t fit in your schedule. Hopefully, adults have learned the skills that are needed to be successful in these situations, yet we know that isn’t always the case. How can we expect children to have those same skills? They need to be supported and guided to learn how to sit for long periods of time, not by sitting for long periods of time but by being able to work at the level they are ready for and work towards new goals. Children should feel safe with their teachers and know that it is okay to make mistakes because making mistakes is how we learn to make changes for the better. If children are shamed and humiliated for the mistakes they make, they will become scared of making mistakes and could ultimately stop trying altogether.

All in all, I encourage readers to read the original blog. It has links to the research behind why there are four worse things than learning to read. Young children learn best through play; they need to practice skills over and over again in order to get them right. This includes social interaction and mastering their sense of self. Children should be allowed to be children for as long as possible—to play and love life so that they foster their own love of learning.

The importance of intentional teaching

I ran into my mentor teacher from my preschool practicum recently and it had me reflecting on what I learned from her about being intentional in my teaching.

Intentional Teaching

How do you make time to individually plan for each child in your care?

When I was smack dab in the middle of my practicum, I was a college student, just trying to get through it. I would have a good idea that I saw on the internet or remembered from somewhere and want to try it out. I would run the idea by my mentor teacher and she would ask me what felt like a hundred questions. Why did I want to do it? How was it relevant? How would I implement it? How did it align with the state standards? What questions would I ask? How would I introduce it? How would I wrap it up? At the time it really felt nit-picky and unnecessary.

Not only did she have me reflect on my activities, but she also taught me how important details of the implementation are. For example, when making a literacy interactive chart, the words needed to be two finger lengths apart. She taught me there are certain fonts that support children’s development more effectively than others. I learned how it’s as important to plan for transition time as it is to plan the activities and experiences around the classroom. For example, instead of ending circle time so all the children can line up to wait to wash hands, plan a song that sends some children to wash hands and some stay. I learned that even time outside and time in the muscle room need serious consideration about what materials to put out. The longer I spent in the classroom, the more I came to understand how important all those details are. We have to be very intentional about what we plan for children and it has to be based on the individual needs of the children, not just some cute idea I saw on the internet.

I have to admit, at first it felt very overwhelming. The prospect of being in a classroom someday, writing my own lesson plan for every day of every week of every year felt impossible. In a classroom full of children, how was I going to have time to plan experiences for individual children and think about all the questions I know my mentor teacher would ask? It was hard at first but gets smoother with practice. The best first step is to be aware of the things that need to be considered when planning for your classroom.

Are the activities you are “pinning” developmentally appropriate practice?

All early childhood educators strive to demonstrate what is considered developmentally appropriate practice every day in their programs. Step Up To Quality in Ohio and STARS for KIDS NOW in Kentucky rate our programs to ensure we are living and breathing what researcher’s have proven to be best practice. One of the hurdles programs may be facing is selecting and executing a curriculum that best suits their program and the children’s needs. As the curriculum is settling into place, educators plan activities based on the individual skill levels and the interests of the children. As we know, children develop different skills at different times. The range of development is very broad in the early childhood years. So how do we plan curriculum activities that meet all these different development levels?

According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, basing your curriculum around open-ended activities is a great way to ensure every child can be successful yet challenged at the same time. Open-ended activities have intentional teaching strategies that serve a purpose and have goals. These types of activities provide children with more learning opportunities. They foster scientific inquiries, promote creativity, enhance social skills, build self confidence, and create a passion to learn.

This is an example of an open-ended activity. There is no end

This is an example of an open-ended activity. There is no end “product” in mind. Children are learning about mixing color, developing fine motor skills—and so much more!

When discussing curriculum planning and classroom activities out in the field of early childhood education, many teachers inform me they use Pinterest as a resource. Yes, Pinterest may have many “cute” ideas or art activities but they may not presented in an open-ended way. Unfortunately, some of these activities are surrounded by modeled art, which focuses on the end product of an art project, not the child’s ability to be creative, explore, and learn. Plus, let’s face it, my end product as an adult never looks as well as the end product on Pinterest! So why are we holding children to this Pinterest standard? What is the purpose? What are the goals? Many of these activities have no purpose or goals surrounding them, they’re just cute. Many of these activities are not truly based on the current interest of the children in your classroom, they’re just cute. Many of these activities are not cognitively inspired by the children in your classroom, they’re just cute. Many of these activities do not challenge children to a higher level thinking process; again, they’re just cute. I do understand there may be some activities on pinterest that are more open-ended than others. I encourage educators who may be using pinterest to seek out those activities that have a purpose and are focused on learning objectives and goals. Some activities can even be altered to be more open-ended, meeting the varying developmental skill levels of the children in your classroom.

When you are looking for new activity ideas for your classroom, consider the following:

  • Is there a purpose or a goal?
  • Is it something the children in your classroom would enjoy, based on your observations of their current interests?
  • Does it challenge the children to a higher level thinking process?
  • Does it meet the varying developmental skill levels of the children in your classroom?
  • If it is product art, could the activity be altered to be more open-ended?

Our goal in this field is to strive for what is considered developmentally appropriate practice, provide high-quality programs in early childhood education, and ignite a passion in children for becoming lifelong learners. Please carefully select activities with a purpose, learning objectives, and goals, not only because it is cute on Pinterest.

Life can be a lesson plan

At a meeting last month with other school-age specialists from around the state, we were discussing curriculum and its use within child care programs—school-age classrooms specifically. Another specialist said something that stopped me in my tracks. He said, “Life can be a lesson plan.” Wow, what a simple notion, yet it has so many possibilities for learning opportunities! Now, don’t take him literally; I don’t expect to walk into your classroom, look on your lesson plan sheet and just see ‘Life’ written on every line. But, life experiences can provide a wealth of activity options, and the best part is that the concepts will be familiar and relevant to the children.

Let life inspire your curriculum!

Life can be a lesson plan in many different classrooms. When my colleague made that statement, I was reminded of a time recently when I was in the grocery store and the customer in front of me had a toddler with her. The toddler helped the customer put the groceries on the conveyor belt, handling boxes of crackers, packets of cheese and bags of baby carrots. When all the items were successfully taken from the cart, the child looked at the customer and said, “All done!” My early-education brain immediately thought of all the skills the child was demonstrating, as well as ways that they could be reinforced in a toddler classroom, such as having empty food boxes in the dramatic play area, demonstrating the concepts of all/none with different items or picking things up using one hand or two.

In an infant classroom, you can include aspects of the babies’ lives by placing photographs of the children’s families where they can see the photos, identifying the family members in the pictures for them or creating sensory bottles with new or familiar objects like fake flowers, birdseed, foil, dice, water/oil, (remember to always, always, always glue the top on). In a preschool classroom, you can incorporate everyday life by encouraging the children to picture-read through a book, celebrating their cultural differences or constructing a discovery board with various household devices like latches, knockers, locks, spigots and switches. In a school-age classroom, life practices can be used by sending letters or e-mails to pen pals, utilizing extension activities in connection with field trips or creating a currency to represent the classroom that they can earn or spend.

You can find the expectations for each age group’s knowledge and skills in the new Early Learning and Development Standards for birth through Kindergarten entry, and Ohio’s New Learning Standards for school-agers. They can help give you a basis for activity ideas to do with the children in your care. As always, please feel free to share how you use life as a lesson plan in your own classroom.

The 5 A’s of the Heart

I recently overheard an interaction between a child care provider and the children in her toddler classroom that made me a little bit uneasy. The sounds of children crying were eclipsed by their teacher saying, “Those of you who are crying, go away. My friends who aren’t crying want to have circle time.”

In Lynn Staley’s Nurturing Positive Behaviors In Your Classroom, she states that “children need mentors more then they need critics.” This has always rung true for me. Too often I observe child care providers speaking at children but not with them, using language that does not guide positive behavior but condescends and devalues. While I feel it’s important to point out that lengthy circle time is not appropriate for 2-year-olds, what’s most important for me to note about this interaction was the lack of empathy in the child care provider’s statement and her tone.

According to the “5 A’s of the heart,” also discussed in Staley’s book, children need affirmation, attention, acceptance, affection and appreciation. All children deserve affirmation, to hear positive reinforcement and praise. Regardless of behaviors, each child has strengths that we should emphasize.

Children also need attention. Every child wants to know that their caregivers are happy to see them each morning. Sometimes children “act out” because they are desperately seeking attention, and even negative attention is attention! When you have many children in your care, it’s important to recognize and value each child.

My personal favorite is acceptance. All children need to feel accepted and not just by their friends, but by you, too! Children will react by mimicking your behavior, so remember that if you are constantly saying a child’s name or calling a child out for challenging behaviors, the other children may not include that child in play and may even tell that child that she is “bad.” I like to think of Staley here, too: “When we speak every child’s name with kindness and respect, it is the truest demonstration of our sincerity.”

Research has shown that warm, responsive touch positively influences a child’s development, so show them some affection! With the child’s permission offer high fives, hugs, lap sitting and other appropriate touching as much as possible. Remember that not every child welcomes touching, so when we ask we’re showing that child appreciation, too. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that children want to feel valued and appreciated. All people do.

Let’s be honest, anyone who has ever worked in a child care setting has experienced circle time like the one I described in the beginning. I know I have. However, the best professionals (in any field) want to learn from their mistakes and do better. If you’ve ever wanted to tell a crying toddler to “go away,” consider this: the “5 A’s of the heart” will help you to have a classroom that supports a child’s growing identity, shows each child how much you value them and are there to comfort them and will hopefully keep you from reaching a place where you feel you need to tell any child to “go away.”

Remembering Mrs. Bean

The other day I was in an early childhood classroom. Not unusual, it’s a place where I have been frequently, in one role or another, for over 40 years – as a student, volunteer, teacher, director, coach, assessor, parent and grandparent.

My first-ever early childhood classroom experience was Mrs. Bean’s Nursery School and Kindergarten. I was almost four. From time to time I’ll think back to that first experience (what I can remember of it) comparing/contrasting the “now” and “then.” And the “now” is ever-changing as time marches on–for the most part.

For example, I don’t remember dittos and worksheets. I’m not saying specifically we didn’t have them, but I certainly don’t remember them. What do I still remember? For one thing, I remember that cotton comes from a plant, wool comes from a sheep and–this was the real mind-blower–silk comes from a worm! Wow! (I’ll also admit these were simpler times before synthetic fibers.) What made it so memorable? We could see, touch and feel! Well, there were only photos of the animals, but we saw them, and could handle the cotton boll and the plant, the “just shorn” wool, and the silk thread and fabric. We could put our hands on them. We could share them and talk about them. We could relate it to our own experience. (Sewing was big in our household.)

Since best practices in early childhood education were first collectively addressed by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) in their Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP) adopted in 1986, the landscape of the field has changed significantly. What we used to believe was good practice was based mainly on tradition and instinct. With the help of science and long-range studies we now have data on which to base our practice. To adapt to and accommodate these changes DAP has been revised three times, most recently in 2009, though the principles of child-centered learning have remained at the heart of DAP. Mrs. Bean had the right idea all along!

Today it’s wonderful to see early childhood on the radar of funders and legislators, but with that come standards of performance and accountability for all of us–children, teachers, parents and the funders and legislators. As we strive to meet standards and be accountable, it is essential to base our decisions and practices on what that science and research tells us. Children learn best in child-centered environments with individually- and age-appropriate, meaningful, hands-on learning.

Not every activity and experience we provide in our classrooms will pass the “Mrs. Bean test,” but I hope some of mine have. And, it’s a vital thought to have in our minds as we plan our curriculum. What’s really going to be significant and make an impact?

Oh, and thank you, Mrs. Bean. You had good instincts.

Take a Closer Look at Quality

Most people prefer quality products, whether it is food, cars, hotels or even movies. In our society, we have systems that rate the quality of the items that we purchase. There is even a monthly magazine dedicated to rating and ranking items for consumers. With so much concern about quality products, why isn’t the same time and thought put into purchasing child care? Most people spend more time researching what car to buy or what movie to see then where to send their child while they are at work or school.

Fortunately in the states of Ohio and Kentucky, there are quality and improvement rating systems that help families select quality child care. In Ohio, we have Step Up To Quality (SUTQ) and in Kentucky, STARS for KIDS NOW. These systems look at quality factors that are proven to help children be better prepared for school, work and life. Unfortunately, these rating systems are also voluntary, which means families often do not have all of the information when selecting care for their child.

A lot of programs can look wonderful from the outside. An attractive building, beautiful landscaping and lots of new equipment make it appear as if children will receive what they need to grow and learn. Even having degreed teachers isn’t a guarantee of quality. Teachers need to understand what is age appropriate and how to choose activities and plan experiences based on the children’s interest and where they are developmentally. Take a closer look at your own program. Are you truly implementing developmentally appropriate practice or is it just words on the brochure?

According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), young children learn by having positive relationships with responsive adults that “promote not only children’s social competence and emotional development but also their academic learning.” Teachers should be talking with children, encouraging them to try new things and sharing in the excitement of each child’s learning. Children also learn through active, hands-on involvement and should be encouraged to investigate, question and ponder problems. Children also need to have meaningful experiences while constructing their own understanding of the world, and they do this by making choices, solving problems, conversing and negotiating throughout the day while engaging in high-level play. If the majority of children’s time is spent in group activities conducted by the teacher, the children are not getting the high-level play which is proven to be one of the best predictors of later school success (Smilansky 1990).

Having a quality program is much more than appearances. I challenge any program, whether SUTQ-rated or not, to stop and reflect on their day to day practices. Think about what it is like to be a child in your program. Is most of your day spent talking to the other children in your classroom?  Does your teacher tell you what activity to do, or is the classroom set up with purposeful materials for you to explore? Teachers should observe and take advantage of the “teachable moments” when children are already at play. Every child will not be ready for every activity at the same time, and experiences should be adapted based on the children’s age, experience, interest and abilities.

Remember when it comes to children, we should not expect anything less than quality. Using a system that rates quality is the first step, but you still must reflect on your day to day practices to ensure that your program is providing children with what they need to learn and grow.